Sen. Jon Tester in unique position to discuss farming in Montana

Western Montana InBusiness Monthly

by Betsy Cohen

Western Montana InBusiness: Why is farming an important sector of Montana’s economy?

Tester: Agriculture and food security is vitally important to feeding America’s people.  Farming is also part of the solution to make our country energy independent.

Agriculture is Montana’s number one industry.  For as long as Montana has been a state—and countless generations before that—folks have been making a living off the land.  It’s simply part of Montana’s heritage.  And it always will be.

Family farms are small businesses.  And small businesses are the backbone of Montana’s economy.  From wheat and barley in the golden triangle to cherries in the Flathead, our farms have been a part of our nation’s economy for many, many years.

Why should Montana care about food grown locally? How does it benefit us?

You can’t beat “Made in Montana.”  It just tastes better.  And because I know where it came from every step of the way, I know it’s healthy and safe.

That’s the reason I Sharla and I bring beef we butcher and wheat we grow in our “back yard” to our rental in Washington.

Buying locally is a win-win.  You get better, tastier, healthier food.  You don’t have to pay expensive transportation costs.  And you support Montana family farms and ranches in the process.  That’s good for Montana’s economy.  It’s good for Montana families.  And it’s good for our kids and grandkids.

What are the challenges facing today’s Montana farmers/ranchers?

Farmers always take risks.  We deal with high input costs (the stuff we need to make crops grow, such as fuel, fertilizers, equipment, etc).  We deal with unpredictable market prices. We also face high costs of shipping our food to the marketplace.  And we deal with a lack of competition in the marketplace.

And of course, there’s the threat of our family farms disappearing altogether.  That can happen through farm consolidation.  It also can happen when young farmers are forced to leave the farm so they can afford health care.  Or to find opportunity elsewhere.

How as a state can we overcome these challenges?

It all starts by expanding opportunities for production agriculture research that is focused on profitability in production agriculture.  We need to focus that research that:

  • Allows farmers to reduce input costs and increase production.
  • Encourages start-up businesses that add value to agricultural products and increase competition in the marketplace.

Is there upcoming legislation that will encourage small, independent farmers?

As one of only two farmers in the U.S. Senate, a lot of folks asked for my input in the Farm Bill Congress passed last year.

That Farm Bill is overall a decent bill.  But we need to do more to make it more responsive to small, family farms.  In the future, I’d like to see low-interest loans for beginning farmers.

Last year’s Farm Bill finally recognized the benefits of local food production.  It gives schools more authority to purchase local food.  It creates incentives for local farmers’ markets.

Montana agriculture isn’t just about food.  I inserted a provision in the Farm Bill to create federal crop insurance for camelina.  Camelina is a plant that grows well in our neck of the woods.  Its seeds produce oil that can be converted into biodiesel.  After you crush the seeds, the high-protein leftovers make a nutritious livestock feed.  And camelina can be rotated with other crops so that it doesn’t compete with our food supply.

What is your favorite meal of Montana-grown food? (Does Jon or Sharla have any family recipes they want to share?)

I always love a good Montana steak.  But Sharla makes a pretty darn good wheat salad too.
Wheat Salad
Cook 1.5 cups of wheat (you can also use purple barley) covered with water for approximately one hour, or until wheat is soft.  Rinse with cold water and strain well.
While the wheat is cooking, mix together:

  • 8-oz package of cream cheese
  • 20-ounce can of crushed pineapple (do not drain)       
  • 2 packages of instant vanilla pudding (sugar-free is fine)
  • 1 large container of cool whip

Add the softened wheat and mix well. Cool in the fridge before serving. 

Is there anything else you want to say about the importance of growing food in Montana or on the topic of food security (i.e. in Missoula, we are putting houses on the best places to farm, forcing us to get/grow food from sources that are further away.)

Building houses on our best soil doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  A democracy doesn’t work if people are hungry.

I have always said there are two things that have set our country apart and allowed it to flourish—public education and family farm agriculture.  If we lose sight of either of those values, our country will change for the worse.

That said, I’m working hard in the U.S. Senate to give voice to Montana’s family farmers and ranchers.  And every decision I make is based on what I feel is best for Montana—and our rural heritage.
As always, I appreciate hearing from you.